Off to the Coal (aka “Swing”) States

August 3, 2016

This week finds the candidates embarking on campaign swings through battleground states – Colorado with nine electoral votes, Virginia with 13, Pennsylvania with 20 and Ohio with 18.

Another description for battleground states is “coal states.” Like most toss-up states this year, they either produce or use lots of coal, and sometimes do both. It provides 60 percent of Colorado’s electricity and 2,400 direct jobs. Pennsylvania coal generates almost a third of the commonwealth’s power and provides more than 11,500 jobs, accounts for 59 percent of power and 4,400 jobs in Ohio and 20 percent of electricity and 5,300 direct jobs in Virginia.

In addition to generating a third of the country’s electricity, coal also generates some of the most sharply divergent opinions between the two parties. Republicans continue to embrace an all-of-the-above energy strategy, which includes all types of domestic energy, in like coal, natural gas, solar, wind and other energy resources. An increasing number of Democrats are moving towards a keep it-in-the-ground approach, minimizing or overlooking the economic consequences of doing so or the realistic ability to deliver on this promise.

As they approach coal state voters, neither candidate has so far offered persuasive explanations for how to fulfill their parties’ varied aspirations for coal. And the truth rests somewhere in the middle.

Trump boldly promises to restore coal jobs, doubtless referring to the more than 67,400 that have been lost since the Obama’s administration’s regulatory purge began in 2011. He opposes the Clean Power Plan that now threatens still more coal mines, plants and jobs with extinction while providing no meaningful environmental benefits. What Trump hasn’t shown is how exactly—or even generally—he would reverse the ravages of these and similar regulations. How would he give new life to an energy source that is still vital for reliable, base load power? How to protect coal’s 740,000 direct and supported jobs that are among the highest paying in a lousy job market with a labor participation rate hovering near a three decade low?

Clinton’s task in coal country is tougher. She promised to destroy more coal companies, double down on the Clean Power Plan and essentially continue coal’s systematic destruction through regulatory fiat, but then grieves for the loss of miners’ livelihoods and the collapse of their communities. Just the sort of message that creates “authenticity” issues. In Pittsburgh she said steel can come back with government assistance but forgot it can’t without coal. Telling miners they can trade their $90,000-a-year jobs for call center gigs may win support in Santa Monica but not in southern Ohio.

Whoever becomes president next year, the task will be hard. But the road to the White House is paved with coal, not promises. It is time to stop the unnecessary loss of coal industry jobs with realistic plans for America’s energy future.